White America, for the most part, makes a critical distinction between "good" and "bad" Black Americans -- and a related distinction between "good" and "bad" Black behavior. It goes way back.
During the 1960s, for example, Muhammad Ali was a "good Negro" when he seemed to be just a happy-go-lucky wise-cracking Olympic Gold Medal winner named Cassius Clay. Most whites still approved of Clay when he defeated the "bad Negro" Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion. Liston struck most whites as an urban thug.
But when Clay became Ali, a proud Black nationalist who refused induction to help the white U.S. imperialists kill brown-skinned peasants in Vietnam, he became a "bad Negro." White America preferred non-militant Black fighters like Floyd Paterson and Joe Frazier to the magnificent Black Nationalist Muhammad Ali.
The great Black Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown was a "good Negro" as long as he was setting new records while staying silent politically on and off the gridiron. Brown lost his luster in White America one year after he left football and called the Muhammad Ali Summit, bringing some of the nation's top Black athletes to Cleveland to voice support for Ali's refusal to be drafted. Among the courageous sportsmen who came in for white criticism for attending Brown's 1967 summit were Boston Celtics great Bill Russell and future NBA superstar Lew Alcindor, who would later change his name to Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
Millions of white Americans cheered as they watched U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos take the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meters at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. But when Smith and Carlos raised their fists in Black Power salutes on the medals podium, it was a great scandal in white America.
It isn't just about sports, of course. The great Black actor and singer Paul Robeson was a hit with white audiences playing Othello on Broadway during the World War II. Whites cheered him then as they had in Rutgers' football stadium during his All-American college football career. But Robeson was shunned and blacklisted because of his anti-racist and other leftist political views after the war.
The obedient Black race-accommodator Booker T. Washington was invited to dine at the White House with Theodore Roosevelt in 1901. No U.S. President ever offered an invitation to Washington's Black rival and critic, the great W.E.B. DuBois, who founded the NAACP and advocated militant Black challenges to white supremacism.
Harry Belafonte was just peachy-keen with white America when he was seen as the handsome, happy go-lucky singer of Caribbean folk-tunes like "The Banana Boat Song" ("Day-O"). His Caucasian stock fell when his Left world view was reflected in his eloquent advocacy of, and financial support for, the struggle for Black equality during the 1960s.
While widely reviled across the white U.S. South, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was seen by many U.S. whites as the nice liberal, Christian, and moderate "good Negro" alternative to the ultimate "bad Negro" -- the brilliant and angry Black nationalist Malcolm X -- during the early 1960s. But King's reputation with much of moderate and liberal white America fell when his own radicalism became more evident as he moved from dismantling southern Jim Crow to confronting what he called "the triple evils that are interrelated" -- racism, poverty/class inequality, and imperial militarism -- in the urban North and across the whole nation.
A Black woman dedicated to the struggle against racial and class oppression and imperial war could never become a media personality beloved by tens of millions of whites. That could only happen to a white-accommodating Black woman like Oprah Winfrey, who built a remarkable fortune on the soothing of white egos and on the embrace and advance of mass consumerism and the white New Age culture of narcissism.
Other Black women who have achieved great personal "success" because they have been willing to dutifully serve white power include Condoleezza Rice, National Security adviser to the blithering imperialist President George W. Bush; Omarose' One'e Manigault-Newman, a key assistant to the openly racist white nationalist Donald Trump going back to the days of Celebrity Apprentice; and Donna Brazile, a longstanding henchwoman for the racist white Clinton family and other right-wing corporate Democrats.
Clarence Thomas, Colin Powel, Eric Holder, and Barack Obama are shining male examples of Black political operatives who moved up by obediently serving white and imperial power.
Even Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. deserves mention here. By the middle-1990s, he was running cover for the racist white southerner Bill Clinton, the cold-blooded murderer of the young mentally disabled Black death-row inmate Ricky Ray Rector. President Clinton collaborated with racist white Republicans like Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay to kick millions of poor Black women and children off public assistance and to advance racist mass incarceration and the racist police state with his vicious "three strikes" crime bill. During his time shuffling for the Clintons, Jackson (as Elaine Brown noted in her brilliant 2003 book The Condemnation of Little B) visited a prison to lecture Black inmates on their own supposed personal responsibility for the great American racist lockdown.
The dutiful "good Black" who knows his place and avoids revolutionary politics while helping whites get by and feel better about themselves is a disturbing Hollywood staple. Examples include movies like The Green Mile (where Michael Clarke Duncan played John Coffey, a massive Black Death Row inmate who miraculously restored the physical and spiritual health of a white prison warden played by Tom Hanks); the "racist fantasy buddy flick" (in the words of Kirsten West-Savali) Driving Miss Daisy ( Morgan Freeman played a dutiful white driver who sassily befriended and boosted the ego of his white lady employer in the Jim Crow South); An Unfinished Life(where Freeman served as the one-man Black life-adjunct to a bitter white rancher played by Robert Redford); The Shawshank Redemption (where Freeman was prison pal, escape partner, and psychological support for a wrongfully convicted white banker played by Tim Robbins); Million Dollar Baby (good old Morgan Freeman as trainer of a white female boxer played by Hillary Swank; and (sharing the same white director as Driving Miss Daisy) Mr. Church (Eddie Murphy is hired by a single white woman dying of cancer to raise her little girl and ends up giving the rest of his life to being the narcissistic daughter's de facto father). As the Black commentator Kirsten West-Savali wrote in a properly biting review of Mr. Church on The Root last year:
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